Before Peter Gordon came to Downtown Manhattan in the mid-1970s to become one of the cornerstones of the city’s “new music” scene, he lived in the Valley adjacent to Los Angeles. It was there that he met Don Van Vliet, soon to be known as Captain Beefheart. Upon Vliet’s passing, musician/author Ned Sublette asked Gordon to write a remembrance of Vliet for his email list. (For more on Peter Gordon, check out the compilation of his late ‘70s/early ‘80s music that DFA put together, entitled simply The Love of Life Orchestra
TEENAGE DAYS WITH CAPTAIN BEEFHEART
by Peter Gordon
December 17, 2010
Ned Sublette’s email asked if I was going to write about Captain Beefheart, adding “I think you should.” This seemed to come from out of the blue. Then all sorts of Beefheart-related links were appearing all over Facebook. And it kind of sank in that Captain Beefheart had passed away. I had heard Don was sick and had been expecting to hear this news for years, yet it was a surprise nonetheless.
So I am now writing this at Ned’s suggestion, before I read any of the obituaries and tributes which I am sure are already showing up:
To put it bluntly, Captain Beefheart changed my life and set me on the musical path which i am still following.
I met Don when I was a 17-year-old senior at Taft High School in Woodland Hills, in Los Angeles’ San Fernando Valley. I would drive over to Don’s house in the nearby Canoga Park hills with my friend, Richard Benedon. Richard had met one of the Magic Band at Ernie Ball’s Guitar and was invited over the house, where all the members of Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band lived and rehearsed. The band was always rehearsing as a group or individually practicing.
Captain Beefheart’s music, among many things, was about precision and clarity of vision. He saw music as shapes, rather than musical forms, and there was a exactness in what he expected. It was not pretty, at times: he could be quite a tyrant. Don would often summon musicians and demand that a particular part be performed immediately. If there was a mistake, and there usually was, the musician was ordered downstairs to a practice room to perfect the part.
Don saw himself as a visual artist – he regarded his music as painting with sound. His primary musical reference was Howling Wolf. I can still picture that Howling Wolf record cover propped up against the bookshelf beside him. But he was trying to find an additional octave beneath Wolf, and was fascinated by the vocal multiphonics he could achieve with his deep cavernous voice. I tried to engage him in discussions about John Cage, which he acutely dismissed with a comment about following the “50–50 method: you play whatever you want and half the notes are bound to come out right.” Aleatoric music in a nutshell, via Captain Beefheart.
And before I had heard of Duchamp, I saw Don Van Vliet take a slice of toast with melted cheese, lacquer it, and nail it on the wall.
Frank Zappa had loaned Don an Ampex 1⁄4” reel tape recorder, and Don recorded demos for the album they were working on at the time (Trout Mask Replica) in the living room. He would often experiment with microphone placement, at one point putting a microphone in a bush outside of the house. Sometimes other musicians would drop in to play on a song, and Don would have them play instruments which they were least familiar. Don had Ian Underwood playing guitar, or Artie Tripp playing piano. But the core of the band was Zoot Horn Rollo, Winged-Eel Fingerling, Rocket Morton, The Mascara Snake, Drumbo – though I knew them as Bill, Mark, Victor, John, etc.
Don had a stormy relationship with Zappa. The two of them grew up together in Lancaster, CA, and were close, but Don felt that Zappa was always ripping off his ideas. Which seemed a bit paranoid at the time, but over the years i kept noticing Beefheartisms – phrases and non-sequiturs – which would appear in Zappa’s music or album art. And after coming back from the recording sessions for “Trout Mask Replica”, Beefheart was always dissatisfied with how hurried Frank was in setting the vocal microphones. He felt that Zappa never fully captured the full resonance and dynamic range.
Don had an old white Volvo sedan – maybe a Volvo 544. There was a Thrifty Supermarket on Ventura Boulevard that was open 24-hours, and I would go on shopping excursions with Don and the Magic Band to buy supplies at 2am. Don would stand by the checkout and call out a shopping list – eggs, cheese, bread, coffee – and the band members would scour the aisles for his requests, filling the basket, which Don would majestically take to the checkout counter.
Sometimes I would accompany Richard and his girlfriend over to the house. The two of them would retire to another room and I would be left alone to hang with Don. Don alternated between harsh interrogations regarding how I saw music and pontificating. Don would demand clear and precise answers to enigmatic questions, otherwise he would continue to grill you. There was no sense of musical concordance or common practice, nothing was to be taken for granted or accepted without question. Authenticity of purpose, of intent and a direct connection to the subconscious were foremost concern. Music was a time-based manifestation of shape and color. Don painted in two dimensions, created sculpture in three, and made music in time.
Don did not respect music as background. Before a concert in Pasadena, he came onstage and demanded that the music being played on the PA be turned off. “Turn that off! It’s bowling music! I didn’t come here to lose weight, I came here to make music!” Music was something rare, to be valued.
I left the Valley to go to college and I didn’t see Don again. A number of years later Richard ran into Don and told him that I was making electronic music. “I knew it,” Don said, “I KNEW it!” Disapproving but I imagine with a twinkle in his eye. I never sent Don any of my music. I always had the feeling he’d hate it.
The last time I heard Captain Beefheart and The Magic Band was a concert at USC in 1972, on a bill with The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo (a band which would later figure in my life through my brother Josh and dear friend Steve Bartek.)
Captain Beefheart showed me that the vocabulary of popular musical genres – in his case the blues – could be removed from their usual context and could be treated a raw musical material. He taught me to just trust whatever came out of my horn, and not to get bogged down by thinking too much as I played. Don showed me the rigor and discipline required to make an ensemble work. He also showed me, through negative example, how not to be a mean tyrant but, if you have to be, do it with a sense of humor and style. But most of all, Don showed me how to think like an artist about music.
I still have a vinyl copy of Trout Mask Replica. My original copy had long disappeared after someone borrowed it and didn’t return it. However, I had subsequently borrowed the album from Randy Cohen in 1976 and I never managed to return it. But then, I had loaned my copy of the album Lick My Decals Off Baby to Kenneth Gaburo in 1973, and he never returned it.
I don’t listen to Captain Beefheart’s music very often anymore, but I always think about it and feel it.
Don Van Vliet – Captain Beefheart.